Thoughts on fatherhood February 2020 #
Two weeks ago my son was born, a healthy and happy baby, and as a first-time father a lot of people seem very keen to hear how I’m finding the experience. Similar to the “which do you prefer, Australia or Israel?” question I get asked frequently and still don’t know how to answer quickly, I find the question “so what’s it like being a father?”, or one of its many and varied iterations, is very hard to answer quickly and glibly, and have found myself at numerous points with different guests at our home over the past two weeks not being able to string together a response that accurately describes how I’m feeling. So I thought I’d try a little harder to express my answer to the question, insofar as an entirely new way of looking at and feeling about life can be said to be an answer to a question.
Ostensibly, pregnancy is preparation for birth. I felt like this was true for emotional preparation in a lot of ways as well. There is a slow but steady and irreversable sense of progress towards a single goal, a single point in time that everyone talks about and describes to you as life-changing. It becomes more intense as time progresses. The inevitable end of the process, its physical intensity and the reality of what comes after become more and more real and closer in time.
Everyone tells you, of course, what happened to them, and this becomes their (almost always unsolicited) advice about becoming a parent. Some say it’s going to be hard, some very hard, some say children sleep more than you’d think, or less, that they cry a lot, or don’t, are sick a lot, or aren’t, and any permutation of these options you can imagine. It’s like this, of course, because the experience of parenting is very personal, the variance of experiences vast, and everyone’s baby, just like everyone, is different. This is something a lot of people miss, I think, a lot of the time: they generalise out their own experiences assuming that everyone experiences things in the same way. It’s not limited to people’s experiences with babies either: this sameness of experience is how societies become so homogenous and bland without the spice and progress that comes with immigration or generational change.
When I initially thought about writing this issue about my own experience, my first thought was to write about the first week, and how I felt then: about the strange and unexpected sense of calm, of the new sense of purpose that seems to permeate everything. Of the relief after the stresses of pregnancy, of finding that newborns actually sleep quite a bit more than I had expected. But the second week changed my mood and my outlook a little bit; I began to feel the gravity and the meaning of what was happening a little more. I had been a little eager to prove the pessimists wrong I think, to show myself that I could still keep all my projects and mental “spinning plates” in the air, without necessarily giving myself enough rest or cutting myself enough slack when things were hard. I kept coming back to the question of whether I even really know when things are hard, whether I trust myself to be aware when I am burning out and need to slow down for my own mental health.
So in this very fertile emotional environment I had to carve out some time to sit down and engage with the computer and my mind to write this down. This whole blog, which I’m still not circulating anywhere or trying to promote in any way, became a project I was questioning the meaning and relevance of. Other hobbies and projects, of course, have had to be set aside for the time being. But I wanted to stick with writing, as it’s becoming an important part of how I condense my thoughts and articulate them to myself. Needing to sit down and write something about my experience in the first two weeks of parenting created what Craig Mod likes to call a “forcing function”: a deliberate barrier you place in your life that you know you will trip over in the future and be required to perform a certain action.
So how to frame the piece, then? I want to be honest, and I want something I will stand behind in the future, and I want something insightful and original that isn’t going to be interpreted precisely as the kind of advice I derided earlier. I don’t want to give advice at all, rather to answer the question I initially posed to myself: what is it like (for me) to be a father?
For me, it’s like a new identity, a new contract with myself and with the world and with my new family. Parts of who I used to be are still there: most of the parts, probably, some in better condition than others. The part that likes reading about programming language design and algebraic geometry at midnight might need to go on a break for a while. But the other parts are all still there, just in smaller amounts (measured in hours per week, say), or a little more dormant (measured in times per month, say). If they’re real, integrated parts of my personality and my full identity then they shouldn’t feel like plates you need to keep spinning. They should reappear when they have enough room to come to the surface.
I’ve written a few times before here about balance, and I have found myself coming back to the idea many times in the past few weeks. I am truly coming to believe that life is all about improving one’s ability to find balance. It’s impossible of course to be truly in balance upon all the infinite spectra that we are placed on throughout our lives. But the process of realising your place on a spectrum that is new to you, and trying to understand its extrema and where you stand between them, and how better you can find that elusive fulcrum in the centre, is something I strive for as a goal in all endeavours. Being a father feels like a very new, very large space made up of many new spectra I have never encountered before in my life, and which I am slowly mapping by feeling them out in the dark. Like with most things at the beginning, like when a point is thrown randomly onto a new axis with uniform probability, the default is to be out of balance, and being alright with that is the hardest part of the process for me. I like being good at things and find it hard when I’m not. I like to think I understand myself, and it’s difficult when I act unpredictably to new things. But when I take a little time to look back on this new seething space from a spectrum where I am more comfortable, say by writing my thoughts down, it becomes easier to see this new experience for what it is, to appreciate its beauty and its rarity and its humanity more clearly, and to be grateful and happy for these moments, and for myself.
Finally, I hope it goes without saying, that nothing anyone can say can really prepare you for the new reality of having a child. It’s an intense and personal bond that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before and it all makes me feel stupendously lucky.
Links and resources #
- Paul Graham on having kids.
- This old Gruber post that made this Dad-to-be feel a bit emotional at Christmas-time.